January 21, 2021

SE: Home for the Holidays – How K-State created the Little Apple Classic

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By: Austin Siegel From K-State Sports

The Little Apple Classic is less than two months old. 

Even in the world of college sports, where “classic” is less of an adjective and more of a noun for rivalries and holiday tournaments, that word doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. 

There are items in your fridge that have been around longer than the tournament that will see K-State welcome Colorado, Drake and South Dakota to Manhattan this week to tip off the season. 

Welcome to college basketball in the time of COVID-19.

It’s a world that Drew Speraw has been working in for months, after K-State found themselves without an early season tournament back in September. 

“I talked with 15 or 20 different events,” he said. “Each of them had good things and bad things about them. It helped us circle back to, ‘Let’s try our own event.’ Once we had a good conversation with Colorado, everything moved forward in finding teams that would join us.”

The Director of Men’s Basketball Operations at K-State is used to navigating the high-stakes game of musical chairs known as multi-team events, or MTEs.

Playing in at least one these showcase events each season is a regular part of the college basketball calendar for Power Five programs like Kansas State.

From the Fort Myers Tip-Off to the Paradise Jam, the Las Vegas Invitational and the Barclays Center Classic, K-State has been a regular participant in these events.

MTEs are an opportunity to complete the notoriously difficult work of putting together a non-conference schedule and compete in front of a national audience before conference play begins.

Usually, the Wildcats will play two to three games in an early-season tournament, an event that is often scheduled and announced up to a year in advance.

That gives fans an opportunity to purchase flights and hotel rooms and guys like Speraw plenty of time to iron out the details before K-State Men’s Basketball makes the trip. 

“We look at a ton of different stuff. A lot of those MTEs are in nice places and give us the ability to get on TV,” Speraw said. “For us, the most important thing is what opponents can we get?”

In 2020, the Wildcats were supposed to head to the Cayman Islands for a tournament that featured a mix of Power Five and mid-major opponents.

K-State was set to face Oregon State in their first game and could match up with teams like Miami, Ole Miss and Nevada as they advanced through the tournament. In other words, the Cayman Islands Classic was an ideal MTE for the Wildcats.

Until it was canceled in October, when the start of the college basketball season was delayed due to COVID-19.

“The scheduling has been really, really difficult. There are so many unknown questions for everybody,” Bruce Weber said. “I know football has dealt with this. I know other leagues will have other testing protocols. We want to get as many games as possible.”

With the rise of MTEs and “conference challenge” matchups (K-State vs. Butler in this year’s Big 12/Big East Battle, for example) scheduling a home-and-home series with a Power Five opponent is more challenging than ever. 

When the Cayman Islands Classic fell through, Speraw went to work to finding a way to replace those games.

The biggest factors for the Wildcats were finding matchups where the team could be competitive and gain experience, with minimal travel due to COVID-19.

“We wanted teams that were close to give us the best chance of [playing]. You’ve seen a lot of tournaments canceled,” Weber said. “We talked about going to Colorado…a couple of things didn’t work out, but we kept making calls.”

Drew Speraw

Of course, that also meant asking questions Speraw might never consider in a normal season, like if potential opponents were coming from a place where COVID cases have been on the rise in 2020. 

“Some of the events we looked at early were just trying to do too much,” Speraw said. “The buzzword was bubble, bubble, bubble. You had these promoters trying to create these events with lots of different moving parts. One of the reasons we were set on doing something here is simplicity.”

Speraw said he first thought about K-State hosting their own unique, on-campus event when the Cayman Islands Classic fell through. He originally looked at organizing an event with the other suddenly-tournamentless teams that had been scheduled to play in the Caymans. 

But an old Big 12 rival in Colorado ended being the dance partner that K-State needed. 

The Buffaloes were originally headed to the Fort Myers Tipoff, before Colorado decided to withdraw from the tournament. 

With a Power Five partner, the tournament began to take shape, with “simple” on everyone’s mind. Specifically, Speraw wanted to limit the event to four teams, make sure everyone was guaranteed at least two games, and if possible, host the event in Manhattan. 

Of course, even the most basic MTE usually operates as its own organizations with a full-time staff. 

Speraw had some help from Executive Associate AD Casey Scott, but otherwise, he was basically putting the Little Apple Classic together out of his office in the Ice Family Basketball Center.

The son of former UCF head coach Kirk Speraw and a former captain for the Golden Knights, Drew Speraw had experience playing and coaching in marquee tournaments like the Maui Invitational and San Juan Shootout.

That proved useful in putting together the Little Apple Classic on the fly. 

“You pick up things like, ‘Hey, this is how I liked it when I was on the other side.’ Things that I saw and how they operated,” Speraw said. “At the Big 12 tournament, for example, you see the highest level of event management. You start to understand how things run.”

Though K-State Men’s Basketball has put together games in Wichita and Kansas City, Speraw said his only other experience planning an event of this scale has been the summer camps that the Wildcats host every year, bringing hundreds of youth teams to Bramlage Coliseum.

With Colorado on board, K-State originally invited Drake and South Dakota State to complete the Little Apple Classic field. 

When the Jackrabbits dropped out – a domino effect after teams from the canceled Battle 4 Atlantis created a new tournament in Sioux Falls – the Wildcats replaced them with South Dakota. 

“Losing a team was tough,” Speraw said. “It came down to South Dakota, a team we already had on our schedule. They had a team that had to cancel on them, so it came together nicely.”

The end result will be three programs arriving in Manhattan that all won more than 20 games last season, providing K-State with the competitive schedule the team was hoping for. 

“Drake has an experienced point guard, Preseason All-Missouri Valley, and they won 20 games last year as a good offensive team,” Weber said. “Both them and Colorado have really good point guards.”

Just in case you wanted to pretend this will be a normal tournament, Weber said the officials for the Little Apple Classic are already in quarantine to ensure they will be available this week.

COVID-19 testing for players and coaches remains top of mind. 

Speraw said he worked with K-State Director of Sports Medicine Matt Thomason to make sure the team’s testing policy for the Little Apple Classic met the standard of the four different athletic conferences that are represented in the tournament field.
 
“That’s taken a little bit of time, but I think we’re in a really good place as we get into the week,” Speraw said. “This is a different year than anything we’ve ever experienced.”
 
It’s been months of work to for Speraw and the Wildcats, all of it for 40 minutes on Wednesday at Bramlage Coliseum when K-State can finally focus on Drake and on college basketball. 
 
“The teams are excited and we’re all just trying to get to that point,” he said. “For everyone I’ve talked to in the tournament, it’s just about getting to Wednesday, let’s tip this thing off, and let’s play.”
 

For more on this story go to: K-STATESPORT

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